In the cartoon division of children's entertainment, the popularity of Japanese animation and manga comics has led to a wondrous revival on Kids' WB! of Astro Boy, a 50-year-old character created by Osamu Tezuka. The first ''Astro Boy'' cartoons were imported here in the early '60s; this new version was animated in Japan and dubbed into English, a process the press release pretentiously calls ''transcreation,'' when what they actually mean is ''adapting for mass America.'' Briefly: In the future, Astro is a human-looking robot who flies on ''rocket feet'' and has fingertip laser beams and, most important, ''kokoro,'' which translates roughly as a soul. He was created by Dr. Tenma, who went mad and now skulks in the shadows of every episode, trying to regain control over Astro. But our wide-eyed little hero is under the charge of the kindly Dr. O'Shay, head of the Ministry of Science.
''Astro Boy'' was Osamu Tezuka's parable of threatened innocence. Astro wants to be part of the world but doesn't know how the place works; he asks in the second episode, ''So tell me, what's this whole 'rules' thing?'' Each lushly animated, pastel-tinged adventure -- far superior to most Saturday-morning cartoons, such as the hideous ''Pokémon'' and ''Yu-Gi-Oh!'' (both Kids' WB! hits) and ABC Family's clamorous ''Digimon'' and ''Beyblade'' -- finds Astro trying to pass as a normal little boy, only to have some danger compel him to reveal his powers, which inevitably sets him apart from everyone. He's lovable but lonely, and the lurking Dr. Tenma registers to adult viewers as a creepy predator, waiting to snatch back a creation he considers his property. Like ''Boohbah,'' ''Astro'' prizes freedom -- even the freedom just to be goofy -- as the highest good.